Cutting Through the Jargon: How to Choose a Protein Shake

If you’ve ever walked into a supermarket or health store with the hopes of buying a supplement, then you may well have found yourself somewhat overwhelmed by the sheer number of products on offer. This can result in what is known as ‘options paralysis’; in other words, there are so many different protein supplements to choose from that you end up unable to make any choice at all and walking out of the store empty handed.

What doesn’t help matters is the fact that they all come in so many different shapes and sizes, with so many different bold claims on the front and so much faux science.

‘Contains BCAAs!’

’30 grams per serving!’

‘High carb!’

‘Low carb!’

‘Includes creatine!’

What does it all mean? And what should you be looking for? Read on and we’ll take a look at what some of these terms actually mean and how you should go about picking the right shake for you.

Value for Money

The first thing to look at when choosing a protein shake is probably value. Bear in mind that protein shakes are almost always rather expensive and you can end up paying as much as $100 for a tub. That’s just not sustainable if it’s only going to last you for a few weeks, so you need to ensure you’re getting good value for your cash.

Generally the best way to get a good deal on protein shake is to spend a little bit more money upfront and buy a bigger tub. Smaller tubs tend to cost more per gram of protein and will mean more trips to the shop ultimately.

But a big tub doesn’t just mean the tub that takes up the most space: it should mean the tub that contains the most servings. Many protein shakes will actually tell you how many servings they contain and if you can’t find that information on the tub then you may be able to find it online. A huge tub can be misleading if you need three scoops per serving and it’s only half full once you get the lid off…

The other thing to look at is how much protein you get per serving, which is really what counts. I recently stopped using my usual ‘Precision Engineered’ protein shake and changed to ‘Muscle Fuel Anabolic’ from USN. Technically they contain roughly the same number of servings, and the precision engineered costs half the price. But here’s the rub: Muscle Fuel Anabolic contains 50 grams of protein per serving, versus 20.5 grams in the Precision Engineered. That means that I could in theory take half as many servings of the Muscle Fuel and still get more protein. Then the tub would last twice as long.

Yous have gots to do some maths you see…

Carbohydrates and Calories

The other thing to look out for initially is the number of calories and the number of carbohydrates per serving. In this case the best option for you is going to depend very much on your goals.

Many protein shakes are not really just shakes, but rather ‘gainers’. This means they aim to help you add indiscriminate mass which means muscle and a little bit of fat. When bulking, calories are useful for helping you add mass because they give you the energy you need to get through workouts and to repair your muscles. If you want to add lean muscle though, then really you want to reduce your calories and your carbohydrates and thus protein shakes that contain large amounts of carbs might not be such a good thing.

Precision Engineered in this case contains just 3.1 grams of carbs, which makes it a very lean source of protein and thus one of my favourites. On the other hand, Muscle Fuel contains something like 76 grams of carbs per serving, which makes it a little less lean – but still not entirely a ‘gainer’ as such.

Really your choice here is going to depend on whether you’re an ectomorph, mesomorph or endomorph and whether you want to get bigger, or you just want to add lean muscle.

The Type of Protein

Different protein shakes contain a range of different protein sources. The most popular type of protein by far is ‘whey protein’, which means it is made from whey – itself a by-product of the cheese making process. Whey is a great source of protein because it’s highly ‘bioavailable’ and provides you with a great mix of amino acids. Bear in mind that you will also have to choose between whey concentrate, whey isolate and hydrolysed whey. The difference here is in the amount of processing that they have undergone, with concentrate being the least processed and hydrolysed being the most. More processing equals a higher percentage of protein, but at the potential cost of some bioavailability. The best choice is probably a protein concentrate of around 80% protein (concentrate is also cheaper).

Another good type of protein is casein. Casein is a protein source that also comes from milk, but takes longer for the body to utilise. This means you get a slower release, resulting in a steady supply of protein throughout the day. It’s ideal to take before bed as it means your body will get a slow supply of protein while it goes about rebuilding muscle tissue.

Then there’s egg protein, which as you can imagine is protein from egg. This has perhaps the best amino acid profile and availability, but it’s also very expensive. Most people will stick with whey.

There are also various other sources of protein which include things like soy and pea protein. These are good alternatives for vegans/the lactose intolerant, but they are unfortunately just not as bioavailable as animal and dairy sources. Soy may even reduce testosterone. If you can use whey, egg or casein then do.

Other Stuff

So that’s the very basics covered when choosing a protein shake, but unfortunately it gets more complicated still.

You see, in order to make their products stand out among the crowd, supplement companies have a habit of throwing just about everything they can think of into their shakes. This includes all manner of other supplements that may or may not be helpful for your particular goals.

A common one for instance is creatine. Creatine is a very popular supplement that increases energy and strength during lifts, and that also helps add some size. It may also help to boost intelligence according to some recent research (1), which certainly doesn’t hurt!

Some supplements also throw in multiple types of protein in order to offer a more diverse amino acid profile and ensure a steady release of protein. Others add BCAAs (branch-chained amino acids that are in ready-to-use form), others add various vitamins and minerals (specific amino acids that increase anabolism, calcium, vitamin B6 and others are popular) and others still will add testosterone boosters like tribulus terrestris. Some of the most ‘packed’ shakes are known as ‘all-in-ones’ for obvious reasons.

Do you want all this extra stuff packed into your shakes? Well that depends on you. Some people would rather take things like creatine separately – especially if they want to go through a loading phase etc. (the way you take creatine is not necessarily the same as the way you take protein). Others might not want to waste money on things like creatine if they’re only interested in lean mass – among other things creatine can lead to increased water retention which can actually make you appear less lean.

Tribulus terrestris meanwhile is a supplement that many people will say doesn’t do anything (the jury is out on that one, but it’s certainly not going to work miracles), and you may just want to get your minerals and vitamins from your food/other supplements. Which is probably cheaper.

On the other hand however, there are scenarios where having an all-in-one might be useful for you. For me personally, an all-in-one is currently quite useful. The reason for this is that I wanted to add creatine to my routine, but actually couldn’t find the motivation to keep taking it (creatine tastes all ‘grainy’ and bitter on its own in water or tea). Apart from that, I often just wouldn’t remember, and after taking a protein shake the last thing I wanted to do was to drink another glass of fluid just in order to get some supplement or other.

The Bottom Line

So the bottom line is, that for lean muscle you want a protein that is low in carbs and calories. For bulk you want high protein and possibly some carbs too. Extra ingredients may or may not be useful depending on your goals, while you’ll need to do some maths to work out the best value for money.

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